When the 890,000 voters in Guinea-Bissau went to the polls to elect members of the parliament last Sunday, many hoped that the vote would be decisive enough to bring an end to the political instability that has derailed development in the country since independence from the barbaric Portuguese colonialists in 1974.
Any student of the country’s politics would tell you the lack of proper political structuring at the executive level of the government has been the root cause of the problem. Guinea has a semi-presidential system where the executive president, the head of state, is elected on his own but the party with the largest number of seats in the parliament produces the prime minister who is the head of the government.
Oftentimes, they come from different parties and never seemed to agree on anything. The frictitious working relations have on many occasions led to a complete paralysis of the government. Consequently, Guinea Bissau has become used to its government being dismissed, military coups disrupting democratic processes and its parliament being summarily dissolved. Unlike all of its neighbours, the country seems to be unable to emerge from an almost chronic sense of political instability.
Last Sunday’s polls took place several months after the original deadline specified by electoral law for the timeline on new elections had expired. The vote was supposed to be held in March 2023 already at the latest, following the dissolution of the parliament by President Umaro Sissoco Embalo on May 16, 2022. But that did not happen.
For a year now, Embalo has been appointing members of the government to manage the affairs of the country — without parliamentary oversight and without personally being held accountable for anything along the way. Guinea-Bissau’s current dilemma began with a power struggle between the president and the parliament at the beginning of 2022.
President Embalo wanted deputies to approve his proposal for a constitutional revision, which would make the head of state also head of government — as is the case in the majority of constitutions of the Economic Community of West African States. However, parliament, controlled by the former ruling party, PAIGC, rejected the constitutional amendments proposed by President Embalo.
Parties like PAIGC, MADEM-G15, and PRS all equate absolute majority governments with the only guarantee for governing stability. Since the advent of the first multiparty elections in 1994, Guinea-Bissau has had three such absolute majorities in parliament. After the first absolute majority in 1994, in which PAIGC won 62 seats, the country stumbled into civil war. The second absolute majority, in which the PAIGC obtained 67 seats in 2008, culminated in a coup d’état in 2012 which saw Carlos Gomes Junior removed from governance. In the third absolute majority government, the PAIGC, led by Domingos Simoes Pereira, dropped from 67 to 57 seats in parliament in 2014, after a number of dissidents left the party in a dispute. This last event led to the expulsion of 15 PAIGC deputies, who formed their own party, the “MADEM-G15.”
This MADEM-G15 is the party of President Embalo and he did everything he could to get it an absolute majority so that he could pick a prime minister of his choosing. But it was not to happen as the PAIGC-led coalition got that majority and therefore the chance to select the prime minister. Ironically, the head of the coalition is the very man President Embalo sacked as prime minister and vowed never to appoint him again!
For all we know, Guinea Bissau might be on the throes of a new political standoff. Both Embalo and Pereira are strong willed personalities. So even after 22 prime ministers, eleven legislative elections and 29 years of democracy, the search for political stability in Guinea Bissau continues.